To a certain degree, everyone who jumps into the field of music journalism does so because of a passionate hunger for hearing something new and exciting. When it comes to finding that something new and exciting, the deeper one digs into new sounds and unheard styles, the more apparent it becomes just how many uncharted musical realms there are to discover. The beauty of following this path of discovery is that, inevitably, embracing one style will provide an entry point to another. Hip-hop may turn one on to grime, drum `n’ bass to dubstep, funk to afrobeat, and so on. The chain, though finite, at times seems boundless.
Diving headfirst into a new genre, however, can be an intimidating task. Without exposure from a friend or acquaintance leaves us to take on much of the task on our own. Where does one start? Who are the best artists? Who are the hacks? And, most importantly, will this path of discovery be of any value to me? If you learn, absorb, or most importantly, enjoy anything in the process, then that musical journey most certainly has value.
With “Hold On To Your Genre,” Treble introduces a new series in which its writers take on a genre, head-first, in the hopes of unearthing to readers some ground previously uncovered, and for the writer himself, something much deeper than what is readily apparent on the surface. As we sample each style’s numerous delicacies, we hope our readers, in turn, will likewise take something interesting away from the process. There’s always a new genre or style to discover, and sometimes it takes an all-nighter to hear everything it has to offer.
Speak the word “doom” and expect it to be met with any number of connotations — death, judgment, failure, destruction, disaster or an inescapable and likely unfortunate destiny. So, by extension, pairing “doom” with “metal” leads to a kind of music that’s not merely heavy, but generally darker, drearier and significantly more bleak than that of your average headbanger. But doom metal has existed long before death metal, black metal, crust punk, sludge, metalcore, mathcore, power metal and metalgaze, it just didn’t have a name at the time.
The time in question is 1970, and Ground Zero is Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut, a thick, eerie piece of psychedelic murk that more than likely made some proper conservative households uncomfortable at the time, and may or may not have given a few kids nightmares thanks to its horror soundtrack riffs and chilling, bizarre cover art. It’s generally accepted that the album is the first true heavy metal album ever recorded, but it conveniently also stands as the first doom metal album ever recorded. So it was nothing but inevitable that hundreds of imitators would spawn from Sabbath’s ominous shadow, first among them American traditionalists like Pentagram and Tyrant (later Saint Vitus), then a spate of British cauldron stirrers such as Witchfinder General and Pagan Altar, and eventually an even more diverse coven of spellcasters in Cirith Ungol, Candlemass and the uncharacteristically Biblical-themed Trouble.
In the field, the ability to identify doom metal doesn’t exactly require the keen ear for detail that picking up on the differences between death metal and grindcore might entail, and that primarily stems from doom’s penchant for wide, deep and encompassing sounds. More specifically, it’s the slowest form of metal you can find. There aren’t necessarily hard and fast rules, but doom is vastly the domain of downtuned, tempo-dropping nightstalkers. It’s music for subtler, slow terror than it is the soundtrack to slasher porn. It creeps rather than jolts. It lurks rather than imposes.
And yet, that doesn’t quite cover all of the various offshoots that doom metal has given rise to over the last four decades. Winter cross-bred doom with death. Earth made it slower, deeper, longer and heavier, and took out the vocals. My Dying Bride and Katatonia gave it a gothic touch. Jesu and the Angelic Process bathed it in shoegazing walls of noise. And I’m not even about to get into the differences between doom metal and stoner metal. (For the record, Sleep’s “Dopesmoker” is both.) I will, however, steer this doomed vessel through the waters of seven unique, distinctive albums that each marked landmarks of the genre as well as important directional shifts.
No flash photography. Candlelight only. Keep your arms inside the grimmrobe at all times.
Pagan Altar – Pagan Altar
Let it be known among the legions of “tr00” that long before Vikings-in-training were swapping white-label Moonblood bootlegs and Hellhammer cassettes, the UK’s Pagan Altar were the creators of one of the most widely circulated unofficial albums in metal. In fact, the band’s debut cassette was really only a demo, but for a decade and a half, metalheads passed this thing around like it was Maui Wowie until, finally, in 1998, it was given an official release under the name Volume 1. The esoteric appeal of Pagan Altar’s debut lends itself well to doom metal mythology — if one were to actually set up a shrine of skulls, candles and mystical talismans, you could do worse than this soundtrack for some unholy deeds of the night. Then again, for something that’s got a tinge of black magic in its veins, it’s pretty catchy! To look at that creepy, super cool cassette artwork (far superior to Volume 1‘s), you might think this more evil than it is. But while darkened doom textures loom large on Pagan Altar, it’s much closer to New Wave of British Heavy Metal icons like Iron Maiden or Angel Witch than Sunn0))). But that said, it’s closer to Sabbath, doom metal gods of the old school, than anyone else. Just check the crunchy swing of “In the Wake of Armadeus” or the epic riffage of “Pagan Altar.” Even Terry Jones’ vocals bear a resemblance to those of Ozzy Osbourne, though at times he sounds strangely closer to onetime Byrd and Americana icon Gene Clark. But, you know, more evil.
Saint Vitus – Born Too Late
More so than in other genres, it’s pretty common in metal for a band to periodically replace its singer. And most of the time, it’s not that big of a deal. Black Sabbath brought in Ronnie James Dio when Ozzy Osbourne went solo. Iron Maiden went through a handful of singers before Rob Dickinson took the helm. And in the case of Los Angeles doom metal titans Saint Vitus, Scott Reagers and Scott “Wino” Weinrich each took half-decade shifts as team captain. Born Too Late is the first Vitus album to feature Wino on deck, and his throaty, burly growl is a perfect match for the slower, creepier sound the band goes for on the album. And yet, paganism or the occult isn’t really that big of a factor. In fact, the title track is all about being born in the wrong era, and thus being alienated from society (key line: “And I’ll never be like you“). Still, Saint Vitus quite ably cooks up some stoned witchcraft on Born Too Late, an essential of the genre, and manage to rock pretty hard on a psychedelic plane.
Candlemass – Nightfall
I have a confession to make: I’m not that into Candlemass’ first album, the admittedly fantastically titled Epicus Doomus Metallicus. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it, necessarily, but held against its follow-up, 1987’s Nightfall, it’s a bit dreary. That is sort of the point of doom metal, so there’s no need to point that out to me, but simply being dark and heavy doesn’t mean doom can’t also be a little more colorful. That’s where Nightfall comes in, an album equally as epic and mighty as its predecessor, but with more diversity, some faster tempos, lots of deft guitar work and the operatic vocals of Messiah Marcolin, whose over-the-top, almost King Diamond level theatrics (no corpse paint though) bring the band’s sound to another level. To his credit, the band’s first singer, Johan Langquist, was actually pretty good. But with Marcolin at the helm, Sweden’s Candlemass transformed into an even more dynamic group.
Winter – Into Darkness
(1990; Future Shock)
First of all, let’s just marvel at that super cool, extremely eerie black-and-white artwork, which pretty much informs the listener that Winter’s Into Darkness is going to be a bit dark. And it is — 41 minutes of soul crushing, glacially paced doom with all the ugliness and harshness of death metal. Hence, “death doom” is born. Better recording technology and the ability to channel Satan through one’s throat made subsequent death-doom releases all the more guttural and vile, but Winter’s raw blend is effective in its harsh, sluggish simplicity. The band’s most notable influence is Celtic Frost, whose bleak, uniquely slow thrash style plays a pretty big role in shaping this release. But John Alman’s growl is even more menacing than Tom G. Warrior’s. The first listen to Into Darkness is, admittedly, a bit rough. Winter doesn’t make anything easy for the listener, and that’s sort of the point. But it’s worth a few more listens to let this one get under your skin. It’s a glorious kind of ugliness that’s worth celebrating.
Earth – Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Version
(1993; Sub Pop)
Earth, in its various forms throughout the past two decades, has always come much closer to an ambient or experimental outfit than strictly a metal band, and more recently has evolved into something of a droning post-rock group. But in spite of the absence of chugging riffs or occult imagery, Earth without a doubt has made some of the heaviest music ever to grace this fragile planet. Dylan Carlson started the band in the 1990s with Kill Rock Stars founder Slim Moon, and for much of the ’90s spent time releasing records on indie/grunge powerhouse Sub Pop, though even die hard Pacific Northwestern punks might not have been adequately prepared for the ribcage-rattling demon fuzz that the band projected. The band’s landmark album, Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Version, isn’t so much a collection of songs as a continuous 70 minutes of dark, thick droning fuzz. “Seven Angels” is ominous, to say the least, Carlson’s heavily distorted rumble stirring up a noxious smoke. It’s weird and creepy and massive, and there aren’t even any drums or vocals on this record. Whether or not it’s “metal” might be up for debate, but it most certainly spells doom.
Yob – The Unreal Never Lived
(2005; Metal Blade)
I’m not sure exactly what “Yob” means, but I’ve always equated the word with the unholy thrum the Portland doom metal troupe emits. Every chord is, basically, one mighty “YOB!” I could be totally off base here, but you get the idea — this sludge-tastic trio does doom with a commitment to massive, crushing low-end that’s powerful in its sheer brute force. But going against a long doom metal tradition of playing as slow as humanly possible, Yob has more than a little get up and go in their sprawling dirges. Sure, only one song on The Unreal Never Lived is less than 10 minutes long (it’s 9 minutes long!), but they’ve all got a lot more momentum than your standard creeping doom metal funeral procession. In fact, there’s more than a little bit of boogie to “Quantum Mystic,” and the final quarter of the 20-minute monster “Mental Tyrant” erupts into a crushing, Neurosis-style freak out. There aren’t many bands heavier than Yob that also boast their level of songwriting and accessibility. And the fact that they’re from Portland, land of 1,000 indie rock bands, surely must stick in the craw of Sabbath-worshipping purists.
The Angelic Process – Weighing Souls With Sand
(2007; Profound Lore)
Doom metal is, much like any other subgenre of metal, frequently populated with traditionalists. That’s not necessarily a problem — Saint Vitus pretty much does what they always have, and it continues to be awesome. But simply because it’s the oldest form of metal out there, doom has also been subject to a lot of stylistic experimentation, and some of it has been truly revelatory. Justin Broadrick famously added shoegazer textures to doom metal heaviness, and similarly, Georgia’s The Angelic Process expanded even further on the idea, blending the dense glory of My Bloody Valentine with crushing drone doom textures, resulting in a sound that’s not merely heavy, but quite beautiful, and emotionally affecting. The duo of Kris Angylus and Monica Hanson, who were also married, made the kind of music that defies easy categorization, and did so with as much volume and noise as possible. The level of distortion on Weighing Souls With Sand is nearly impenetrable at times, so crushing and massive it seems as it if would swallow the duo’s melodies whole. And yet, those melodies are what keeps the music ultimately so accessible and gorgeous, in spite of its ferocious noise. Sadly, shortly after the release of this album, Angylus had to stop performing due to a hand injury, and in 2008 took his own life. I realize that’s a pretty dark place to end this feature, but in spite of the personal trauma that befell the band, The Angelic Process made some inspiring, powerful music in their short time together. And probably more than any other album included in here, it’s the best example of doom metal as a profound emotional experience.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.